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US President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on on September 6, 2013 upon returning from Russia after attending the G20 summit. Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin failed Friday to end their bitter dispute over US plans for military action in Syria. -Photo by AFP
US President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on on September 6, 2013 upon returning from Russia after attending the G20 summit. Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin failed Friday to end their bitter dispute over US plans for military action in Syria. -Photo by AFP

LONDON: Ten years ago the leaders of Britain and America took their countries in to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq fuelled by a messianic certainty about their ability to transform the world as they wished. Both George Bush and Tony Blair presided over countries with their own intractable problems — pockets of joblessness, drugs, gangs, inequality — but they combined an inability to solve these domestic issues with an insouciant confidence that, somehow, the problems of Far Away were simpler, and could definitely be sorted out swiftly by several thousand chaps with missiles and guns.

We have all learned how miserably, catastrophically wrong they were. What marks the proposed action against Syria is the weary, wary attitude of the people who feel they are now obliged to enter it. There are no fantasies about the smooth creation of harmonious democracies — only a grim sense that every other option has been exhausted, and that leaving tyrants free to break international rules with impunity will be more dangerous than anything that’s gone before.

I wanted something more than this. Like millions of people, I was appalled by the Bush/Blair fairytale version of the world, in which it was possible to identify the good guys, punish the bad ones, and leave everyone living happily ever after. But I have been clinging to my own fairytale, which is that somewhere in the world there are wise people who do understand the complexity of what’s going on, can plan constructively and cautiously for acting on it, and can reassure us that they understand what’s coming next. That’s why I thought Britain’s Labour party leader Ed Miliband was correct to urge proof, caution and a roadmap before sanctioning any military action last week.

Unfortunately it turns out that there are no wizards behind the curtain. The smart, thoughtful, well-intentioned people running America’s policy behind the scenes are bleakly aware that they have been proved wrong so far. They offer no certainties about the future.

The west went into Iraq and Afghanistan without planning for what might happen next. The Obama administration resolved never to make the same mistake. The state department and the military have spent the past two years obsessively modelling what various interventions or non-interventions in Syria might achieve. The problem is that nothing has developed as they expected, and every projection has left them, as one thoughtful observer says, “down a different rabbit hole”.

Leaving refugees to flee the country is putting intolerable pressure on Syria’s neighbours. At any time one of those countries might decide they have had enough, and shut the border. Locking refugees inside Syria creates a whole new set of problems. If the international community wanted to defend them, no-fly zones wouldn’t be enough. Safe zones would mean ground troops, who would instantly be seen as an occupying army — and no one in America wants to take that route again.

Attempting to concentrate on the west’s strategic priorities — the securing of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical and biological weapons so that neither he nor any rebel groups can use them — would be no easier. This isn’t a James Bond spy film situation, where a small team could fly in and secure a single threatening facility.

The WMD sites are scattered across the country, and consist of tonnes of material. Getting the weapons out would take months. The foreign troops doing the job would have to be protected and supplied in a hostile environment. America has spent a year, and more than GBP40m, training Jordanian troops to do exactly this, but intense conflict would be inevitable.

The west’s preferred option — to fund and advise the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, in order that they could win their own war — hasn’t worked out either. Almost every expert on the region expected Assad to have been overthrown long ago. Instead the arms and aid he’s had from Russia and Iran have tipped the balance in his favour, while the west’s favoured rebels may have been outnumbered by the radical and Al Qaeda factions, assisted by fighters from Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

Western strategists involved feel it’s like playing four-dimensional chess in real time. Day to day, they’ve watched, waited, and taken what seems to be the right decisions only to end up in a morally indefensible place. Now they feel an unbearable line has been crossed. But they know that every action has terrible endings, as it has done for 18 months.They aren’t certain who the west’s good guys might be. As to what’s going to happen on “action day plus one”, they say bleakly that even though they have been thinking about it for two years, knowing that is beyond them. It’s a Shakespearean dilemma. Sometimes the least bad option is the only one.

The unpalatable truth is that there is no safe, morally pure solution. Watching and deploring has its own appalling consequences. Paralysis leaves Assad free to poison as he likes, while threatening to attack him might erode his support and force him to negotiate. Everyone wants a diplomatic solution: the disagreement is about how to get there.

I have reluctantly concluded that Obama’s conviction — that the world must not rule out military action — is right. But there can be no fairytale endings, only hazardous choices, and more deaths.

By arrangement with the Guardian

Comments (10) Closed

citizen Sep 07, 2013 02:36pm

US and Britain have none but themselves to blame if no body trusts them and their intentions given the recent history of their interventions. US is not a benevolent power, which is having sleepless nights because of the Syrian peoples plight. They have, like many others, their own strategic interests in the region to secure.

faza; Sep 07, 2013 05:58pm

ASAD is using chemical on thier own innocent people is this not good enough to get rid of this ugly man,

Rashid Sultan Sep 07, 2013 07:30pm

I am surprised and dismayed at the writer's conclusion. Agreeing with Obama's conviction is engaging the West in another country/culture/religious/sectarian civil war. There are no good and bad guys in Syria per se. Only guys who think differently enough to want to destroy each other. A typical sectarian religious approach to problem resolution. The West has neither the capacity nor the understanding of the middle eastern mind set. The holier than thou attitude is anything but convincing. Killing by any means, chemical or otherwise, produces the same end result. So why get so worked up? The US conducted chemical warfare in Vietnam using defoliants/gas. Remember the image of the naked & burnt screaming girl running from US atrocity? And more recently the tens of thousand deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan & Libya? And the genuinely fake evidence of WMD in Saddam's arsenal. There are oil rich, predominantly Sunni, Arab states who have modern western arms and other resources. Then there is pariah Iran, predominantly Shia, with capacity and oil wealth. And almost secular Sunni Turkey on the border. Let them take the lead and responsibility. And reach longer tern understanding to solve their neighbour's sectarian problems. The West should stay clear of any involvement. Humanitarian issues should be dealt with and through the Arab League & UN.

khan Sep 07, 2013 08:50pm

Bye Bye USA, good by to unipolar world, uncle SAM must taste the Chinese and Russian cocktail recipe prepared in Syria having a bitter taste for all US allies.

Joe Sep 07, 2013 09:14pm

The world is faced with two choices:

... (a) Do nothing ... (but that is immoral -- 1400 people, including 400 children, were killed in one chemical gas attack on civilians).


... (b) Do something ... (but what is the moral thing to do?)

The article could have been more comprehensive if it also mentioned Russia's role. The Russian policy:

... (a) Insist that the UN Security Council makes the decision on what to do.


... (b) Use its veto to defeat three UN Security Council resolutions (so far).

Still, it's a good article.



rana1 Sep 07, 2013 09:24pm

USA and partners are look like bullies, all full of brawn but no brain

Fatima Sep 08, 2013 12:43am

You seem to have bought the administration line that Assad used chemical weapons. The rest of the world is asking you to at least wait for the UN report. I for one am deeply suspicious. If the report tells us that people were poisoned with the help of low tech rockets, or something similar, then should that not make you step back and think? There are US defense contractors in Syria. These are Israeli die hard supporters. Seeing that the only way to get US to intervene is by crossing the "red line", how difficult would it be for them to say give rebels access to chemical weapons through say Georgia? God know, your guys play dirty. Real dirty.

zafars Sep 08, 2013 02:31am

So let me get this straight, The US is going to attack because Syria violated an international agreement - but to attack would mean the US violating another international agrement which says that without UN secuirty council authorization an attack on another country is not legal. Hmmmmm.....John Stewart is right the American leaders are 7th graders.

just curious Sep 08, 2013 07:22am

But where's the evidence. I have been looking accross the media, trying to finde some proof of Assad's and his regime's culpability in the gassing of the people. I have read insinuations by "fair" and "objective" journalists such as Fisk that Assad's government is responsible. But I have found no evidence. What makes these people so sure that it was Assad?

s.khan Sep 08, 2013 08:41am

Attacking Syria with Tomahawk missiles, each weighing 1 1/2 ton, would inflict more deaths and destruction. If it is not a long and sustained campaign it would leave Assad in power. The result will be ineffectual except for president Obama to claim punishment of Syrian regime for crossing his "red line". Peace process, with secretary of state John Kerry worked out with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavarov, is the best way to solve this problem. Iran has major influence on president Assad and need to be included in the negotiations. Unfortunately, USA/UK are adamantly opposed to talking to Iran. It is indicative of lack of interest in USA about the peace negotiations. After all, USA regularly talked to Soviet leaders during the cold war. To achieve the desired results one needs to talk to the enemy, talking to friends only won't work. You are right, there are no wise men in USA/ UK. This problem will go on till Saudis, Qataris, Turkey,USA continue their financial and arms support to the rebels and Iran/ Russia support Assad Government. It is a great tragedy of geostrategic nature.